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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Some of the things law schools do that probably won't help them stay open (but some might be good things to do anyway)

As law schools struggle with fewer resources they are increasingly focused on activities either designed to increase revenue directly or designed to attract students who might otherwise go elsewhere. My sense is that at some schools, especially those that see themselves as vulnerable to being closed or merged with another law school, these initiatives are also taken with one eye on the central administration, the idea being that such actions will at least show that the law school is doing everything it can to alleviate the decline in JD tuition revenues.

But these efforts are unlikely to help a school stay open. In some instances, though, schools should be devoting time, effort, and resources to these initiatives because they will redound to the benefit of their students and the institution.

One such area is the curriculum. There are very good reasons for schools to have a continual, or at least frequent, review of the curriculum, but attracting significantly more students or improving the reputation of the school in the university's eyes are not among them. Especially in the professional school setting, I believe most prospective students are unlikely to be attracted to a curriculum they perceive as innovative or out of the mainstream unless that school can credibly provide evidence that is approach has measurable benefits for employment or for practice.

University administrators, I suspect, would look askance at a professional school that did not periodically review its curriculum, but I doubt that a school that touts its curricular revisions gains status with administrators for that reason alone. Certainly, in the dental school turmoil, curricular reform played no part in predicting which schools would close and which would survive.

Another area that some schools focus on as a way out of their problems is fundraising. That focus is almost always misguided. Except for truly transformational gifts, fundraising is unlikely to keep a school financially afloat. Moreover, donors, especially those capable of making major gifts, tend to shy away from giving when the purpose is to help a struggling institution. Rather, they prefer to give to schools they perceive as already successful; a school that uses gifts to springboard to even greater success. Dental school deans increased their fundraising as a way out of their problems, but even after years of efforts, gifts remained less than 5% of the schools' total revenue. Development work is something schools should devote time and effort to, but they should understand that it is unlikely to be a source of unrestricted funds that can replace lost tuition revenues.

Perhaps the two most common initiatives that schools consider as ways to replace traditional JD tuition dollars are distance education and non-JD programs, which include certificate programs and degree programs that lead to the LLM (or another Masters degree). Both of these approaches resonate with provosts, but neither is likely to help the law school significantly. Here, there is not a good analogy to the dental education crisis. That crisis happened before online learning existed and, while there is post-DDS education, most dental schools did not explore starting or expanding those programs, probably because it would have entailed hiring new faculty members and developing new courses.

For both distance education and non-JD programs, the siren song for institutions is increased revenue with very little additional cost. In executing those programs, though, experience suggests that costs are larger than schools anticipate. And, in the law school setting, the potential revenues are probably less than schools optimistically imagine, in part because the market is more limited than one might hope, and in part because competition is stronger than one might anticipate.

I discuss these issues in more detail on pages 49-60 here.

Posted by Eric Chiappinelli on January 26, 2017 at 09:26 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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